Posted by: James Wapotich | April 4, 2017

Trail Quest: Point Sal State Beach

West of Santa Maria, along the coast, is one of Santa Barbara County’s more remote beaches. The beach is roughly ten miles roundtrip from the trailhead, which adds to the sense of it being the reward at the end of a long journey.

Point Sal State Beach covers 80 acres of land including the beach and out to the point. The area features plants and some unique geology that are more reminiscent of the Channel Islands than the mainland. 

To get to the trailhead from Santa Barbara, take Highway 101 north towards Santa Maria. Exit at Clark Avenue and continue west, passing through the town of Orcutt, to State Route 1. To right onto State Route 1 and continue north towards Guadalupe. From State Route 1, turn left onto Brown Road, which ends at the trailhead. Parking is found along the side of the road.

Point Sal State Beach Santa Maria hike trail Casmalia Hills

Point Sal State Beach

The trail to Point Sal is open from sunrise to sunset. Most of the route is unshaded and there is no water or amenities along the trail or at Point Sal Beach so plan accordingly. No bikes or horses are allowed on the trail. 

From the trailhead, the hike follows an unpaved access road that winds its way out of Corralitos Canyon, and over the Casmalia Hills, before then continuing down towards the beach.

At the beginning of the hike, the hillsides are mostly covered in non-native grasses. However, as the hike continues the patches of chaparral become more and more expansive. Amongst the plants present are coastal sagebrush, coyote brush, black sage, poison oak, and blackberry. 

With the arrival of spring and many of the plants in bloom, one can also spot gooseberry, bush monkey flower, and paint brush. Further along the trail, where the hillsides seem to retain more moisture, there is even hummingbird sage and wood mint, or hedge nettle.

As the trail rounds a wide bend in the road, on its climb to the top of the Casmalia Hills, it passes through a drier feeling section. Here, the hillsides are dominated in places by black sage. Also along the road is chaparral sunflower, lupine, and ceanothus. The diversity of plants easy dispelling what at first glance can look like nothing more than grassy hills and sagebrush. 

At about the 1.5-mile mark, the trail starts to level out as it approaches a cattle guard. Here, along the left side of the road, are brodiaea, or blue dicks, with its purple flowers, long-beaked stork’s bill, with its light pink flowers, and surprisingly, chocolate lilies. 

Chocolate lilies can also be seen in the San Rafael Mountains along Figueroa Mountain Rain. The plant blooms in March and April, and its brown, or chocolate-colored, flowers are what gives the plant its name. Other members of the lily family that grow in our area are mariposa lilies and the rare Ojai fritillary.

Giant Coreopsis Point Sal State Beach hike trail

Giant Coreopsis are seen along the trail

From the cattle guard, the trail crosses over the top of the Casmalia Hills, passing still more chocolate lilies, before arriving at the Vandenberg Air Force Base Gate. 

Originally Point Sal was accessible by vehicle from Brown Road, passing through the northernmost corner of the base. However, in 1998 winter storms damaged the road and it has been closed since. In 2008, an agreement was reached with Vandenberg Air Force Base that allows hikers to access the road and continue down to the state beach. The base reserves the right to close or restrict access, for example when there’s a missile launch. To check whether access is open or not go to www.vandenberg.af.mil/home/point-sal-access.

Past the gate, the access road is paved almost all the way down to the beach, roughly 2.5 miles. The road continues across the top of the hills, before rounding a bend bringing Point Sal into view.

From here, one can trace the line of Point Sal Ridge down to the ocean, as well as see part of the beach. A little further down the road, the views open up to the south. Here, one can see Purisima Point, parts of Vandenberg Air Force, and beyond that Mount Tranquillon and Point Arguello. 

The road makes a long, winding descent down to the coast, passing through hillsides dotted with chaparral, with purple sage now taking the place of black sage.

The road eventually arrives at a second gate. Here, the route down to the beach continues to the right, passing a stand of giant coreopsis, currently in bloom with its bright yellow flowers. A familiar sight on Anacapa Island, where it grows in abundance, giant coreopsis grows along the Pacific Coast from Northern Baja California to as far north as San Francisco. 

Coreopsis is in the sunflower family and can grow to around four feet in height. The plant blooms in the spring, typically from March to May. The flowers and leaves eventually fall off, leaving just the dry stems, giving it the appearance of miniature, barren-looking tree.

The road eventually arrives at the bluffs overlooking the beach. By continuing to the right, there is an informal route that can found that often is often washed out, but with some scrambling, does provides a way to reach the beach.

Point Sal State Beach hike trail Santa Maria

Point Sal is seen from the trail

The pristine beach is about a half-mile long and is one of the highlights of the hike. Swimming, however, is not recommended because of the strong riptides. 

At the far end of the beach one can find outcroppings of ophiolite, a unique and somewhat rare rock type. Ophiolite is a section of the earth’s oceanic crust and underlying upper mantle that has been uplifted and placed on the land. 

The ophiolite at Point Sal is part of the Coast Range Ophiolite, which appears from Santa Barbara County north to San Francisco. It has been suggested that the material was formed at a mid-ocean spreading center, roughly 165 millions years ago during the Jurassic Period. When it was formed, molten rock, or magma, penetrated into the seafloor, where the material either cooled and solidified below the surface, or erupted, forming pillow lava where it met the ocean. 

Portions of the Channel Islands were also formed by submarine volcanic activity, but are much younger geologically.

In studying the magnetic signature of the ophiolite, geologists have determined that it was formed near the equator. Through the movement of plate tectonics it was carried north when Pangaea began to break up and the continents started to drift apart. As part of the Farallon Plate, the material eventually became attached to the western edge of North America. 

When the eastern moving Farallon Plate collided with the North American Plate, the denser Farallon Plate slid under the lighter continental plate. The resulting subduction, volcanic activity, and uplift created the forerunners of the Sierra Nevadas. Essentially acting like a giant, slow-moving conveyor belt, material, including the ophiolite, was scraped off the Farallon Plate as it subducted under the North American Plate and was added to the western edge of the continent.

As the Farallon Plate continued to subduct under the North American Plate the movement bought in behind it the Pacific Plate. However, instead of sliding underneath the North American Plate, the northward moving Pacific Plate began sliding laterally against it, creating a transform fault, which we know as the San Andreas Fault. The shift brought an end to the mountain building and accretion associated with subduction. 

Typically ophiolite is recycled along with other material through the process of subduction. However, because of the path it ending up taking, the ophiolite at Point Sal managed to escape being subsumed back into the earth, providing an unique opportunity to study a section of ancient oceanic crust and learn more about it.

Past the rocks there is no maintained trail or particularly easy route over or around the rocks, even during low tide. But the beach itself provides ample reward for the hike and the satisfaction of having visited a remote corner of Santa Barbara County.

This article originally appeared in section A of the April 3rd, 2017 edition of Santa Barbara News-Press..


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